Trailblazer

Combating climate change

Joseph Cook, Kent, England

Joe Cook has achieved a rare feat: combining his two favourite things into a career. “I’ve always loved both science and the outdoors,” he says.

“Eventually I decided the area of study I enjoyed the most was learning about the biophysical processes that shape our world. At the same time, I loved being out in the hills hiking and wanted to understand the landscape I was in.” This quest led Joe, 31, to become a glacial microbiologist at the University of Sheffield. “I’ve been trying to diversify and find a way for me to have impact in the field and contribute to the global problem of climate change, but also have something that’s more personally satisfying,” he says. “For me, that came by giving up a permanent, full-time job and taking something that’s more like a diversified portfolio career. It’s less stable and secure, but for me it’s much more satisfying.”

“It feels good to be
having a positive impact”

Joe’s speciality has become tracking the effects of microbes on the Arctic’s ice sheets. This is crucial work with a direct link to climate change. “It’s a huge open space when it comes to our understanding of the issue,” he says. “We are looking at how physical features are engineered by the microbes that live on their surface.” His research aims to quantify the effects of microbial growth on sea-level rise. He says: “It’s very satisfying scientifically, because there are massive questions to answer, which impact on the real world. We are already seeing the effects of a changing Arctic in the mid-latitudes. So if there’s a bigger mission, if we are underestimating this, it is really important to know. It feels good to be having a positive impact.”

“You have to find
something to be happy
about every day”

Joe can often be found camping out on ice sheets and flying drones around places such as Greenland as part of his work. “If we really want to understand the processes that are going on at the scale of entire glaciers, we need eyes in the sky,” he says. “We work in these wonderful environments, and I really enjoy the surroundings, as well as the element of teamwork. Out there on the ice, nothing is routine and that’s amazing. It’s incredibly special to be out there; you have a strong sense of camaraderie with the team that you’re there with.” And the impact that has on him? “I think that having a life like this means you have to find something to be happy about every single day,” he says. “Being rich to me means having freedom to have a positive impact on the world around me and the people around me.”

Photography by Daniel Ernst